Kites fly high up in the clouds. Kite flying is pastime, a sporting activity and canvas for artistic expression. For thousands of years kites have graced the skies of many nations of the world. A kite is a cultural symbol and global device that brings joy to its fliers be it a child or an adult.
Kite flying has a fascinating history as man had the desire to fly since time immemorial. Flying an object high in the clouds, controlling it with a string held on earth, and playing in the wind has stimulated men’s imagination in ages. No one knows when men started flying kites. But one has to credit man, his imagination and the wind that ultimately brought about the invention of kites.
The history of kite flying goes back over 3000 years. There is a mention about kite flying in Greek literature way back in 14th century BC. Later it seems, kites moved out of Greece and traveled to, China, Mongolia, and Europe. It is thought that the Buddhist missionaries from China started the spread of kites into Korea and Japan. The silk route was also thought to be responsible for spreading kites into Arabia and North Africa. Portuguese traders and the Dutch were thought to be responsible for introducing kite flying into Europe, other theories suggests that the great Invader Ghengis Khan and his Mongolian warriors brought kites with them when they invaded Asia.
Through out the history each country has developed its own specific and distinctive style and cultural purpose for flying them.
There are many legends related to the origin of kites. One legend believes it was the Malaysians or the Indonesians who first made kites from leaves, and another suggests that it was the Chinese because it is believed that a Chinese farmer tied a string to his hat to keep it from blowing away in strong winds; it was from this that the concept the first kite was born. Kite were initially were made from common paper.
Images of Chinese kite flying
Despite all these legends it is clear from history that kites had many roles to play in the lives of the people. They were used for multiple purposes some useful and some not.
Kites were used by army generals to send signals and to measure the distance of enemy camps and also by the military to spy on the enemy in war and surveillance. Sometimes the kites had a wind harp, which vibrated the wind and produced sound which terrified the enemy!
In the early years after its invention it is believed that Buddhist monks used kites to enrich harvests and to avert evil spirits in the sky; there is also a story of one man who went as far as using a large kite to carry himself to the top of a castle to steal a golden statue on the roof!
In 1295, European explorer Marco Polo was among the first people to document the construction of kites and how to fly them. By the 16th century, the popularity of kites grew enormously because books and other literature publicized kites as children's toys. As the 18th century approached and the initial novelty of kites was wearing off, kites entered a new arena: the field of science, where the kites were used as vehicles for scientific research.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, kites were used as vehicles and tools for scientific research. A Scottish meteorologist named Alexander Wilson used a kite with a thermometer attached to measure air temperatures at 3000 feet to learn more about the wind and weather. This marked the beginning of kites aiding in the study of weather forecasting.
A few years after this scientist Benjamin Franklin and his son William conducted their famous experiment using a kite flown in stormy weather to prove that lightning was indeed electricity. Kites were also instrumental in the research and development of the Wright brothers when building the first airplane in the late 1800's. Sir George Caley, Samuel Langley, Lawrence Hargrave, Alexander Graham Bell, all experimented with kites and contributed to development of the airplane.
Somewhere along the timeline, kites journeyed to India too and have had a colourful history.
Kite history in India
Kites always had a special place in the history of India and dates back to the times when the Mongols invaded India. Although kites existed in India, for a long time, there are no records of their presence until the thirteenth century, when a number of prominent Indian poets began to praise kites in their verse.
The word ' Patang' and ‘Guddi’ find mention in Indian literature- kites in India are known by these names. In 'Madhumalti', by Manzan, there is a mention of Patang, the flight of a kite is associated with the loved one by the poet. Marathi poets Eknath and Tukaram also described kites in their verses where the word ‘vavdi’ has been used. There are mentions of paper kites attached to a thread held in the hand and mention of Guddi flying in other literary works as well, which indicate that the kites enjoyed an important role in India.
The kites rose to prominence within the Indian culture, during the Mughal period 1526-1857, during the times of the Mughal emperors- Babar, Akbar and Shah Jahan. The Mughal emperors were patrons of kite competitions as well as chess, rewarding the best players with handsome monetary awards. They viewed kite flying from the delicate windows of their private quarters, rather than flying them themselves, as they believed that the monarchs did not tread the ground for such sports!
Indian kites were used more to convey messages than for the pleasure of flying them outdoors and this aspect of kite flying has been captured in the Rajput and Mughal miniature paintings from the 16th century-18th century. A list of the number of paintings of this period featuring kites is in the archives of the Ahmedabad Kite Museum; most of these are now in the collection of the British Museum, London.
These miniatures are like photographs, which recorded the information of that era.
In these paintings, three styles of kites were usually depicted: a rectangular kite, a shield like kite, known as ‘Tukkal’ and some what rarely the diamond shaped fighter kite or the ‘Patang’, which is the most familiar kite throughout in India today. The rectangular kite in these paintings is depicted with little paper pennants at each top corner, and long triangular slips of paper like legs at each bottom corner. The ‘Tukkal’ kite is the most commonly depicted kite in the miniature paintings, which indicates that, it was very popular in that era. Today, the ‘Tukkal’ is found only in the Punjab region and in Pakistan. The rectangular kite is no longer seen any where in India and it is only the ‘Tukkal’, and more so the ‘Patang’ type of kites that are flown in India now
The passion for kite flying in India reached a zenith during the 18th century in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, which was also prominent for kite flying activities. It was known as Oudh, and the rulers of this region were the Nawabs. They were of Persian origin and they came to India in the 16th century during the reign of Akbar and participated in the consolidation of the Mughal Empire. By 18th century they become nearly autonomous.
History depicts Nawabs as good-natured, colourful, fun loving, impulsive, and extravagant rulers. They were patrons of music, arts, and builders of richly ornamented architecture. They also continued the enthusiasm for kites that began under the Mughals, their former overlords.
The sport of kite flying was considered as one of the things that gave pleasure in life, so it flourished in the luxurious days of the Nawabs of Oudh. The kites were a symbol of the Nawabs spirit; an appreciation of aesthetic and sensual pleasures, but along with this they maintained their concern for the poor and the needy. The kites that the Nawabs flew were magnificent works of art beyond description. The most renowned kite makers, created them and no expense was spared for the materials or workmanship. These kite makers spent many weeks, to come up with such exclusive kite creations.
There is a story about the kites and a generous Nawab, which is presented below:
There was a Nawab who flew kites from his compound during the kite season. His kites were magnificent made by the best kite makers. Many friends, relatives would come to enjoy kite flying with him. He would also have kite fights with them, and whenever these exquisite kites were cut they were awarded to the competitors as a reward for their kite flying skills.
Amongst the Nawab’s many exquisite kites, two kites were extraordinary. He would fly these two, towards the evening, when the sky was full of kites and would take special precautions to fly them very high in the sky. It was impossible to trace the flying lines of these kites back to the Nawab’s hands.
The townspeople dreamed of capturing these kites; there was a special reason behind this. The Nawab had instructed his kite makers to carefully secure silk purses to each kite of these two kites, in manner as to not hinder the kite’s flight. Each purse had a certain amount of precious metal. One kite had a purse carrying an ounce of pure gold, another an ounce of pure silver. Since these kites were flown very high, when they were cut, they were meant to be captured by the common man of the land, to ensure that the victor had enough money to cover the needs of an average house hold. The amount of gold would support a family for a year and the amount of silver would support a family for a half year. The kites would invariably get cut each kite season!
This story indicates the excellent flying skills of the Nawab and his inspired and generous ways of helping people.
From the days of the Nawab, Oudh or Uttar Pradesh has been well known for kite making and kite flying, in fact considered the kite capital of India! The popularity of kites here caused them to travel to Punjab, West Bengal, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and even to the South in Karnataka.
Uttar Pradesh to this day is a renowned center for making kites in India with millions of kites being produced each year in the cities of Rampur, Bareilly, and Lucknow. These kites continue to be known as Patang or Guddi, in India and are still made of thin, tissue like paper and bamboo sticks for the central support framework. Regardless of the unique colour, design and size, almost all the Indian kites nowadays have a similar shape.
Along with Uttar Pradesh, the kite flying passion has spread to Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu; in fact the whole country has taken to kite flying in a big way. Kite flying in India is characterized by a variety of local customs and influenced also by the regional geography, history, and cultures. But despite the diversity of India, kite flying is popular through out, though some regions are more active than others.
Kites rule the skies on January 14th, the festival of Makara Sankranthi, which can be called the Kite Day in India. The weather is pleasant the skies are clear and perfect for kite flying! Kite flying happens till April, when summer makes it impossible to fly them in the scorching heat. After the monsoons, the real enthusiasts take up kite flying again.
Thus the cycle of flight, and the dance of the kites in the sky continues in India!